If you’ve hung around comics for long enough, you’ve heard of ‘The Judas Contract.’ It is among the five or so most beloved/celebrated DC stories of the 80s, if not the company’s entire existence. It is the one bit of the Marv Wolfman/George Perez on the property that is singled out as their definitive story, the one that demands the most adoration and respect.
I first read the story back in middle school, approximately ten years after its release. I had not read it since. Since we are covering ‘The Lazarus Contract,’ what has been described as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to ‘The Judas Contract,’ I felt it was time to dust the book off and give it another reading, to see if the reputation was fitting.
Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Penciled by George Perez
Inked by George Perez, Romeo Tanghal, Mike DeCarlo, Dick Giordano
Colored by Adrienne Roy
Lettered by John Costanza, Ben Oda, and Bob Lappan
They were Earth’s teenage defenders — unbeatable and unstoppable. Riding high, they took an eighth member — a young girl — into their ranks.She was their downfall.In the ’80s, THE NEW TEEN TITANS was DC’s most popular title and a huge sales success. The series reached a high point with the multi-part storyline now reprinted in this new edition featuring the epic that played on comics readers’ expectations and offered shocking revelations and surprising twists at every turn. Included are THE NEW TEEN TITANS (Volume One) #39 and 40, TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS #41-44 and ANNUAL #3. THE JUDAS CONTRACT is by the fan-favorite team of writer Marv Wolfman (CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS) & penciller and cover artist George Pérez (Avengers, WONDER WOMAN), with inkers Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo and Romeo Tanghal. From the retirement of Robin and Kid Flash, to the birth of Nightwing and the introduction of Jericho, to the ultimate betrayal of a Titan — “The Judas Contract” kept readers positively riveted during its initial run and still has fans talking today.Discover for yourself one of the most exciting times in comics history!
Lately, for my Evergreen reviews for the site, I’ve been looking back on some DC work from the early 90s, and I’ve been struck by just how different the experience of reading comics was in 1993 versus 2017. ‘The Judas Contract’ comes from almost a full decade earlier, but aside from some of the language used, this feels, in a few ways, more modern of a story than ‘Death of Superman.’ Wolfman and Perez rarely use the expository thought bubble as a crutch, which is all over poorer comics of this era. A lot of the story is still overtly expository, but it never feels as frustratingly repetitive as it does elsewhere.
That said, the language in this book firmly dates it to the early 80s, and to a time when teenagers were still written really bizarrely. When the Titans are in battle – in battle – they are constantly referring to each other by nicknames that sometimes function as insults. Robin is “short pants,”
Beast Boy Changeling is ‘greengenes,’ every female character is vaguely discriminated against at just about every turn.
There is also a desire to remind us, constantly, that these are kids. They reference Michael Jackson, they tease each other, they are, in Changeling’s case, utterly obnoxious at every turn. The pop culture references have not aged well at all, and not because Wolfman is referencing Yaz or Samantha Fox (look ’em up, kids); they don’t work because they undermine the heroes of the book as being bratty teenagers. They aren’t focused on stopping a villain, they’re referencing something that would legitimately embarrass a member of the Justice League.
The main villain of the book, Deathstroke, says more than once how capable the Titans are, and how they shouldn’t be underestimated, yet I was underestimating them the entire time, because they were so obnoxious. Now, maybe that was part of the plan: here’s a team that seems inept, but they’re more powerful than they appear. If that was part of the plan, it wasn’t quite articulated well enough.Continued below
But this isn’t a reason to hate or dismiss the comic. I’m even sure there are folks who find this kind of dialogue endearing and character-forming. But the constant nicknames and jabs at each other really did get under my skin after awhile.
That said, the youth of the team is evident in how George Perez illustrates them. There is something carefree and cocky about every action the kids take, whether in a training session or hanging out in Titans Tower. They move and look like kids, and with the at times immature dialogue, it truly paints a book that wouldn’t work with an older batch of characters.
Perez doesn’t get celebrated enough for his truly masterfully visual storytelling. Working with a number of different inkers, he tells a story that runs from underground dungeons to city streets, and makes the book seem unified and consistent, despite the breadth of the story. His action – of which there isn’t all that much, honestly – flows incredibly well and highlights each team member’s powers and abilities with a joyfulness that, again, reflects the youth of the team.
One thing the book does really well, maybe even partly because of the hokey dialogue, is develop a sense of camaraderie and love between the members of the team. While there are definitely some teammates that are closer than others, you never get the impression that there’s much discord or animosity between anyone. Terra, who we will get to in a moment, seems to be particularly taken by this, as she’s shocked a few times at just how much her teammates seem to legitimately care about her.
Terra is a really interesting character, especially as she is presented in the trade paperback of ‘The Judas Contract,’ as we meet her as she’s already a member of the team, but we also know from the first issue that she’s a saboteur, so everything about her is viewed not just suspiciously, but deceitfully. We know that Deathstroke is in her ear, yet Wolfman and Perez present her with enough doubt on her face and in her actions that, at times, the reader is tricked into thinking that, perhaps, she’s changing her mind and coming over to the side of good.
There is one very, very disturbing part of the Terra story, however. She’s referred to as being 16 years old multiple times throughout the story, but she’s also referred to multiple times as being in a sexual relationship with Deathstroke, who is at the very least 15-20 years older than she is. We see in the Deathstroke origin flashback issue that Slade joined the Army in the early 60s, when Terra would’ve been just a baby. It is supremely creepy, and Wolfman and Perez don’t make it any less creepy with how often it is mentioned, usually from Terra, how she can’t wait to straight up fuck her one eyed old man boyfriend.
Deathstroke, I suppose, is the main villain here, but there are enough goats to go around: Terra, Deathstroke, Brother Blood, H.I.V.E. The book handles Deathstroke in an especially interesting way, however, and that is by treating him as both a horrible bastard and a man of his word. Much of how Christopher Priest is currently writing Slade can be traced back here, as he is never truly evil – he’s picking up the contract that was out of the Titans that his son, the late Ravager, had entered into with H.I.V.E., and he intends to see it through. He knows its a bad idea, and he doesn’t really want to kill the Titans, he just wants to finish his job and go home.
It would have been very easy for Wolfman and Perez to present Slade as the mustache-twirling psychopath that comic villains can devolve into, but he’s never that. He’s a grieving father, a prick, and a man who values his word and reputation above all. This isn’t the typical villain, and that helps elevate the story considerably.
This event is also where we first meet both Jericho, Slade’s son, and Nightwing, Dick Grayson’s post-Robin persona. Both introductions are handled marvelously. Jericho, a mute with the power to jump into people’s bodies and control them, is shown to be extraordinarily gentle and caring, and just about as far from Slade as possible. His power is an unorthodox one, and yet the book wastes no time in showing you just how useful it can be. Once he has made eye-contact with you, goodnight.Continued below
Dick Grayson is barely in costume during this event, as he sheds the Robin mantle early on, and doesn’t adopt the Nightwing one until the very end of the series, but he is shown to be an incredible leader from jump. His detective skills are second to none, and even Deathstroke complements how, despite having no powers, he is the most difficult Titan to take down. He truly is the ‘son’ of Batman in his ability to avoid capture and follow clues, and the book really leans into that heritage, while also carving out his own identity within the story.
Despite all the other pieces, the lasting memory, to me, from this book is how the story refuses easy answers. It would have been very easy for Terra to repent at the end, or blame Deathstroke, but she doesn’t. She’s clearly ill, and refuses to get help, and it destroys her. She has no real reason for hating and wanting to kill the Titans, she just wants to, and that is an amazingly ambiguous character beat. But it truly works, and it works in part because of how her defection affects her teammates.
Except for Raven, no one suspects a thing, and all are truly heartbroken over her betrayal. You get the impression that they aren’t angry, but rather just sad. They truly believed in her, and wanted her to be one of them, and she broke their hearts. Changeling, especially, is devastated, in part because of a kiss they shared that he believed to be meaningful. When she betrays him, you can see his heart break in two. Part of that is because, yes, he’s a teenager, and teenage hearts break easily. But it is also the time in our lives when we tend to first get our ideals all messed up, and we learn that not everyone is our friend, and that motivations can really mess people up.
Perez’s art in the last few pages of this book are as somber and heartbreaking as any you’re likely to see in a superhero comic. Unlike, say, Dan Jurgens’s work in ‘Death of Superman,’ there’s no big splash pages to be found, where the tragedy is right in front of you. But in Changeling’s teary red eyes, you see all the heartbreak in the world. Terra’s funeral – rife with deception, as they don’t reveal to the world Terra’s betrayal, another wonderfully nuanced piece of storytelling – is bleak and challenging, and the Titans’ grief over Terra is complicated. Perez’s art shows that beautifully, without going for the big, dramatic moment.
‘The Judas Contract’ really doesn’t take the easy way out, and that is why it is so beloved today. Few comics, then or now, put as much faith in the reader to navigate the morality of the story without being clearly directed in one way or another.